Flying with Firearms
Like many of you, I fly commercially quite frequently and as such I have had several friends and relatives ask me about flying with firearms. “How do you do it? Don’t you get hassled by TSA?” I also know a professional competitive shooter that was handcuffed and almost went to jail for carrying hollow point ammunition into a state he was competing in. So, in order to help those that have state-issued carry permits and wish to exercise their concealed carry rights in other states, I thought I would put together an article on the steps I take to stay on the right side of the law while flying commercially and carrying firearms.
Step I: Do Your Homework
I am an American that respects state’s rights and their sovereignty. As such, I comply with their laws. If I feel that a state or a city’s laws (Chi-Raq for example) put my personal safety in danger then I don’t go there.
With the power of the internet at your fingertips, there is no excuse for not knowing what the state laws are regarding the concealed carry of firearms. For example, which states have granted reciprocity to your state? As you probably know, each state evaluates other state’s concealed carry laws, thoroughness of background checks and training requirements and determines whether they should enter into a formal reciprocity agreement or not. If the two states decide to recognize each other’s concealed carry permits, you are granted reciprocity. In order to determine whether or not my state has reciprocity with the state I am visiting, I usually review USA Carry’s excellent website. They have a great interactive concealed carry state reciprocity map. The NRA’s website is also an amazing resource for laws governing concealed carry, as is handgunlaw.us. So, let's say that you have done your research and you have determined that your state and the state you are visiting have a formal reciprocity agreement. You’re good to go right? Not so fast.
Step II: The Law
I am cautious by nature. Scratch that. I am paranoid by nature. I think it comes from investigating and arresting people for a living. As such, I always confirm my initial findings (on third party websites) by reviewing the actual state’s website. Remember, ignorance of the law is not a valid defense.
The first thing I do is review the state’s website in order to firmly establish that reciprocity has been granted. Secondly, I review the state’s website in order to check for additional concealed carry restrictions. For example, if I am going to be in state parks, public lands, court houses, bars and or restaurants where alcohol is sold or consumed, I will definitely review the state’s law regarding these locations. My home state of Tennessee allows permit holders to carry their firearms into restaurants and bars where alcohol is sold and or consumed, but many states do not permit this. Thirdly, I will review Andrew Branca’s book The Law of Self Defense in order to determine what ‘types’ of self-defense is legally permissible in the state I am visiting.
This is paramount and cannot be ignored. I make this emphatic declaration because the purpose for carrying a handgun is in the unlikely event I will be forced to use it for self-defense. Thus, the review of the laws governing self-defense is important because, believe it or not, not every state’s laws are the same. For example, Iowa and Minnesota (to name only two states) recognize my concealed carry permit. Yet they require the victim of an assault to retreat before ANY force is legally permissible.
This is anathema to us Tennesseans who have some of the most permissive self-defense laws in the nation. Additionally, I always check Andrew’s book to determine if I may use force in defense of another person. My state permits this, but not all states do. Defense of property? It’s also in Andrew’s book. Should I talk to the police? It’s in the book. The last piece of my homework is a quick check of the Transportation Security Agency’s (TSA) website to confirm that none of their regulations have changed since my last flight.
Step III: Preparing for the flight
The following was taken directly from the TSA’s website
Transporting Firearms and Ammunition
You may transport unloaded firearms in a locked hard-sided container as checked baggage only. Declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter. The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed. Locked cases that can be easily opened are not permitted. Be aware that the container the firearm was in when purchased may not adequately secure the firearm when it is transported in checked baggage.
Contact the TSA Contact Center with questions you have regarding TSA firearm regulations and for clarification on what you may or may not transport in your carry-on or checked baggage.
When traveling, comply with the laws concerning possession of firearms as they vary by local, state and international governments.
Declare each firearm each time you present it for transport as checked baggage. Ask your airline about limitations or fees that may apply.
Firearms must be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container and transported as checked baggage only. Only the passenger should retain the key or combination to the lock.
Firearm parts, including magazines, clips, bolts and firing pins, are prohibited in carry-on baggage, but may be transported in checked baggage.
Replica firearms, including firearm replicas that are toys, may be transported in checked baggage only.
Rifle scopes are permitted in carry-on and checked baggage.
United States Code, Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 44, firearm definitions includes: any weapon (including a starter gun) which will, or is designed to, or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive; the frame or receiver of any such weapon; any firearm muffler or firearm silencer; and any destructive device. As defined by 49 CFR 1540.5 a loaded firearm has a live round of ammunition, or any component thereof, in the chamber or cylinder or in a magazine inserted in the firearm.
Ammunition is prohibited in carry-on baggage, but may be transported in checked baggage.
Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be securely boxed or included within a hard-sided case containing an unloaded firearm. Read the requirements governing the transport of ammunition in checked baggage as defined by 49 CFR 175.10 (a)(8).
Small arms ammunition, including ammunition not exceeding .75 caliber and shotgun shells of any gauge, may be carried in the same hard-sided case as the firearm.
Honestly, almost everything you need to know is contained above. At your home or hotel room, unload your magazines and your firearm. Place them in a hard-sided case designed to carry firearms. Make sure your magazines are out of your weapon and the case is locked. You must keep the keys to your case’s lock in your possession the entire time. Your ammunition does not have to be in the hard-sided gun case but it must be in either the original packaging or in a case (or packaging) specifically designed for the transportation of ammunition. The ammunition boxes should be taped shut so the rounds don’t come out of the box in transit. While the guns are in the case, their bolts and or slides do not need to be locked to the rear, nor does a chamber flag need to be inserted in the weapon.
When you approach the ticketing agent, just tell them you are flying with firearms. They’ve heard this before, so don’t worry - they won’t freak out. In the past, they had to look at your weapon to ensure that it was unloaded. When I flew last month, the ticket agent said that was no longer required of them. You will want to place your gun case on top of the items in your luggage because you will have to get the case out of your checked baggage in front of the airline ticket agent in order to tape the firearm(s) declaration tag to the case. The ticket agent will provide you with this card. After you have signed the declaration and put the gun case back into your checked bag, things can get a little weird, depending where you are flying out of.
When I fly out of Nashville (BNA), the airlines ticketing agent always tells me to wait 15-20 minutes in case the TSA needs to see me. Huh? This caused me to miss my flight once. When I fly out of Denver (DEN), the airlines agent calls up a baggage handler to take my checked bag (with me following him or her) to the TSA and I cannot leave the area until the checked bag is X-rayed and I’m given the head nod by the TSA agent. So, my advice is to arrive at the airport two hours prior to departure. You will thank me for it.
Once I arrive at the destination airport, I will usually gear up in the rental car. However, I have been known to gear up in an airport bathroom prior to approaching the rental car representative in jurisdictions where this is legal. Either way, I am ready for the flight.
Step IV: Anecdotes & Personal Screw Ups
As I mentioned in an episode I have personally flown with a retired member of the U.S. Army’s Combat Applications Group (CAG). During his time as a member of an elite special operations unit and later as a Federal Air Marshal (FAM), this individual had flown armed on commercial airlines for years. The day I flew with him, he was just another John Q. Civilian. As a civilian, he didn’t realize that carrying unloaded magazines, holsters and other pieces of kit, in his carry-on bag was a big no-no. He was briefly detained by the police. My friend and I helped to get him out of hot water and after he put the gear in his checked bag, we were allowed to proceed to our destination.
I once left Florida after a handgun course with roughly 700 rounds of ammunition in my checked bag. When the ticketing agent told me that my bag was over the 50 pound limit, I did not want to pay the overage fee. So, I thought to myself, “What’s the heaviest thing I’m carrying…? Ammo!” I began laying boxes of 9mm ammunition on the agent’s weight scale. At first she was cool, but once she saw that the scales tipped over eleven pounds she starting freaking out. She asked me, “How much more ammunition do you have?” I could tell from the tone she was not pleased. I meekly replied, “I don’t know… A bit more?” She said that I was only allowed to have eleven pounds and called the airport police. The cop was cool when I told him I had been in town training local law enforcement and he apologized for the rule, but stated he couldn’t do anything about it. For the record, I could not find the eleven pound reference anywhere on the TSA website but I can assure you that they are sticklers about this one. Eleven pounds of 9mm is roughly 300 rounds. I know because that is about how much ammunition I had to leave in Florida. One of the students in class was happy to come to the airport and accept the ammo as a gift. It makes me sad just thinking about it…
At the end of the day our constitution affords responsible armed citizens to carry their firearms with them across state lines. Because the framers of the constitution knew, “Be safe, and if you can’t be safe — be dangerous.”
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